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‘Really cool’: Jon Rhattigan, from Seahawks rookie camp to West Point graduation–and back

Jon Rhattigan (West Point Academy/Released)

Last weekend, Jon Rhattigan was walking into the huddle leading the Seahawks’ defense in Renton.

This week, he’s been walking through the depths of Seattle’s playbook, learning with All-Pro Bobby Wagner.

This weekend, Rhattigan is walking in his graduation ceremony at the United States Military Academy back in West Point, New York.

Now that’s a strong week for a 22-year old.

For an any-year old.

“It’s really a special opportunity in, really, another form of professional leadership,” the rookie linebacker from Army and product of one of the world’s top leadership development programs said in a telephone interview with The News Tribune this week.

The Seahawks signed the middle linebacker from Army’s Commander-In-Chief’s-Trophy-winning team last month, immediately after the NFL draft. Seahawks linebackers coach John Glenn and Rhattigan had talked numerous times before the draft about the possibility of signing with Seattle.

“Look, man, if it comes to free agency (and you don’t get drafted), just know we are ready to sign you,” Glenn told Rhattigan last month.

The Seahawks knew Rhattigan had applied to the Department of the Army’s pro sports policy. What the military calls a “directive-type memorandum” signed by then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper dated Nov. 8, 2019, states: “Exceptionally talented athletes who have graduated from a Military Service Academy, but have not been appointed as a commissioned officer, may be offered the opportunity to be employed as a professional sports athlete while serving as an enlisted member in the Individual Ready Reserve until such a time as the Secretary of Defense tenders their appointment as a commissioned officer in a Military Service…

“Commissioned officers may request release from active duty in order to pursue professional athletic opportunities. Such requests may be granted by the Secretary of the Military Department concerned, subject to the officer’s agreement to complete his or her service obligation under terms prescribed by the Secretary of the Military Department concerned…”

The newer policy requires the athletes to eventually fulfill their military obligation, or repay the government the costs of their education. Costs of education and military training at the U.S. Military Academy are estimated at $400,000-500,000.

Esper’s policy ended years of back and forth between the previous Obama administration allowing some military-academy graduates service waivers to play pro sports—including former Seahawks wide receiver Keenan Reynolds, the ex-Navy quarterback—and Department of Defense policies prohibiting that.

Graduation day

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said the team’s process with Rhattigan and the Army has been “seamless. There has been no issue.

“He’s here with us just like everyone else now.”

Well, not exactly like everyone else on the Seahawks.

How many of them have a bachelor of science degree in geospatial information science?

That’s what Rhattigan will receive when he he graduates Saturday with his West Point class of 2021. He will join about 1,000 of his classmates in the tradition of throwing his white service cap in the air at the conclusion of the graduation ceremony inside Michie Stadium. That’s where he played as a reserve linebacker his first three seasons for Army’s turnaround coach, Jeff Monken.

After no starts and just 14 games played in three years—what he called a test of “toughness and humility”—Rhattigan had a breakout senior season as a starter in 2020. He was a tackling machine on a 9-3 team that beat Navy and Air Force on consecutive Saturdays in December, then lost in the final minute to West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl. He was one of 18 semifinalists for the Bednarik Award, presented annually to the nation’s top college defensive player.

Before that, he was like most cadets at a military academy: focused on graduating.

West Point has a three-pronged evaluation system for class rank, which the Army uses to determine a cadet’s place in choosing preferred branches (infantry, armor, aviation, field artillery, etc.) and first duty stations. Cadets are graded in academics, within USMA’s engineering-based curriculum. They are graded on military training, readiness and appearance. That ranges from summer training with active Army units to whether your shoes and uniform brass are properly shined in formations each day. And they are graded on physical aptitude, with fitness tests every six months plus required courses such as boxing and close-quarters combat.

“I was focused on the military part of my life,” Rhattigan, from Naperville, Ilinois, said of his first three years at West Point. “But at the same time, playing Division-I football, that was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up.

“I didn’t give up on myself (in football), and I didn’t give up on my team. …

“In the past year, I’ve really matured. I am more confident in myself and what I’ve done.”

He has been selected to be an infantry officer in the active-duty Army. But because the Seahawks have signed him, he is not getting the same regular Army active-duty commission as his classmates on Saturday. Rhattigan isn’t technically going to become a second lieutenant with all other West Point graduates. Not immediately.

He has applied to Secretary of the Army John Whitley for a deferment of his military service, at least through Seattle’s training camp that begins in late July. If Secretary Whitley and the Army approve his request, Rhattigan will remain in the Army’s inactive ready reserve. Officially, he will be an enlisted solider with no current, scheduled duty requirements this summer while he tries to make a Seahawks roster that is in need of linebackers.

The Army’s pro sports policy is how Zac McGraw, a standout defender on West Point’s men’s soccer team through 2019, is playing for the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer. It’s how Rhattigan’s West Point classmate Trevin Kozlowski, an All-American goalie for Army’s hockey team, signed and played this month with the Iowa Wild, a farm team for the NHL’s Minnesota Wild.

Last weekend during the Seahawks’ three-day rookie minicamp, Rhattigan played middle linebacker next to strongside-linebacker conversion project Darrell Taylor. Rhattigan showed quick feet and a quick aptitude for learning the framework of Carroll’s defense.

“Seems like a really cool kid,” Carroll said.

“I’m anxious to see the chip on his shoulder about this, being from West Point and all that.”

A rarity

Rhattigan is trying to become the third military academy graduate, and first West Pointer, to play for the Seahawks.

Reynolds played for the team in 2018. Defensive end Bryce Fisher graduated from the Air Force Academy, then played for Seattle from 2005-07, including in the franchise’s first Super Bowl: Super Bowl 50 against Pittsburgh. Fisher began his NFL career after serving a reduced, two-year commitment as an Air Force officer.

Guard Mike Wahle played for Seattle in 2008, after attending the U.S. Naval Academy. He left Annapolis before graduation, and Green Bay selected him in the NFL’s supplemental draft in 1998.

Rhattigan continued his NFL learning process this past week. While his classmates packed up belongings and readied for graduation day back at West Point, Rhattigan remained in Renton joining Wagner and the rest of the Seahawks defense in a combination of remote and in-person (for the rookies) learning of the playbook.

After his graduation ceremony, Rhattigan will be back at Seahawks headquarters for the start of organized team activities (OTAs), part of the final phase of the NFL offseason training program that runs through mid-June.

Carroll said Rhattigan is learning both middle and weakside linebacker with the Seahawks.

“It’s different. It’s definitely faster,” Rhattigan said of the learning curve in the NFL.

“I don’t understand the defense yet. But I understand the basics, and I’m excited to learn and get better every day.”

A position of need

Wagner, who turns 31 next month, is entrenched as Seattle’s captain and starter through at least 2022. He has this year and next remaining on the $54 million contract he signed in 2019 to become the league’s richest middle linebacker.

Beyond him, the Seahawks are thin and mostly unknown at linebacker.

K.J. Wright, the team’s longest-tenured player, remains unsigned after the team let his contract end with January’s playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams. Bruce Irvin is also unsigned. He is 33 and coming off two knee surgeries since September. Seattle drafted linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven from the University of Washington in 2019. He’s been exclusively on special-teams the first two years of his NFL career. The Seahawks drafted Cody Barton two rounds before Burr-Kirven, in round three, two years ago. He’s gotten some fill-in playing time at weakside linebacker. That’s where Jordyn Brooks, the team’s first-round pick last year, started in 2020 while as a rookie.

Converting Taylor from defensive end to strongside linebacker, where Wright played last season, shows how thin and unsure Seahawks coaches are about who can and will play where among linebackers in 2021.

And it’s not just the linebacker position that is an opportunity for Rhattigan in Seattle. The Seahawks had a franchise record-low three picks in last month’s draft. That means many more chances for undrafted free agents to win roster spots than Seattle has had, ever.

Yes, Rhattigan and his agent were well aware of that when he was talking about signing with the Seahawks.

“It’s a great opportunity for every undrafted rookie out here,” Rhattigan said.

“It’s been great, really. I’m thankful to have this opportunity.”

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